Best of America

Red Dad, Blue Son

My dad is conservative. I’m not. For our relationship to survive, we had to stop talking politics.

Red Dad, Blue SonPhotograph by Erin Patrice O'Brien
Things were going great. On the last night of our family reunion two years ago, my 62-year-old father and I walked along a beach in South Carolina, glasses of wine in our hands, and soaked in the warm air, the full moon, and the gravity of the years. I’m my dad’s first child and only son, now married with three kids, a career, and a mortgage. From the surf, we could both see his grandchildren silhouetted in the glowing windows of the rented beach house. The moment for a toast had arrived.

And that’s when my dad started talking about the Tea Party.

Somewhere along the way, my dad had come to believe that trying to sell me on his conservative politics was the equivalent of bonding. His opining, however, has always had the same effect on me: My jaw clenches, my back stiffens, and the charge of political discord transforms the most beautiful moon on the East Coast into a naked lightbulb hanging in an interrogation room. Suddenly, I’m trapped with a right-wing pundit who happens to be my dad.

Ever since George W. Bush beat Al Gore in 2000, the chronic red-blue conflict in America hasn’t just been a spectacle on cable news; it’s invaded our family’s phone calls, vacations, e-mails, text messages, Facebook posts. It nearly destroyed my relationship with my own father.

Our father-son differences date back to high school, when my dad, an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, personally wrote the essay for my application to a military academy, which I passionately opposed with a declaration that I was a “nonconformist” meant for unconventional pursuits (i.e., tramping around like Jack Kerouac). But the arguments we’d had about politics in recent years had been of a different intensity altogether.

During phone calls and visits home, the day’s news headlines were like a background hum growing louder and louder, overwhelming us. It would start innocently enough: My dad would coyly ask what I thought of, say, the latest skirmish over gay marriage. “It’s certainly a complicated issue,” I’d say, as if trying to tiptoe past a sleeping dragon.

Inside, however, I was roiling, considering some close friends who were gay and in committed relationships. Unable to resist, I’d throw out a line to bait him: Hey, isn’t tolerance an option?
“I’m not a live-and-let-live guy,” my dad would assert gruffly, now freed to unleash his own opinions. “I’m live-and-let-live within a certain set of moral values!”

Global warming, immigration, Iraq, Nancy Pelosi—it didn’t matter the subject: Before long, we were both on our soapboxes, red-faced and yelling. Hang ups were frequent. During weekend get-togethers, the simple act of rustling a newspaper to the op-ed page or clicking my tongue at Fox News was enough to send my dad skulking out of the room like a wounded animal. I’d sit on the couch, depressed and confused. My beleaguered mom was left to mediate, trying to cool everybody down so we could at least have dinner together.

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7 thoughts on “Red Dad, Blue Son

  1. Here’s something to discuss:  why do we only have two political parties in this country?  Why do I have to choose between knuckle-dragging conservatism and limp-wristed liberalism?

  2. Firstly, why can’t people have discussions about politics?  Maybe there’s too much dishonesty and misinterpretations by the media and none of us knows the truth.  For me the difference is simple….. more government intrusion with higher taxes vs. less take home pay with more government control.  I’m sure most will agree that there’s as much greed with the top earners as there is with the no-earners.  Fraud and abuse is just as rampant in government as it is on Wall Street, Main Street and welfare society.  Us older folks who have watched society grow and change have learned through experience that spending money you don’t have is trouble, period.  I have a son and 3 friends of 20 years who won’t talk to me because I said, “how come the democratic Senate hasn’t passed a budget in 3 years when it’s required by the constitution?”  And, “why won’t the spending stop?”  No one knows the answers.  We can only surmise and because we can’t back up our arguments with the facts (instead of media rumors and biased fact checkers), we can’t have an intelligent debate.  Our political choices are far more extreme than the souls of our fellow Americans.   Most of Society believes what it is told, not what it has lived.   Discussing it should be imperative.  

  3. Great article.  On some things you are just going to have to agree to disagree.  But I was thinking: one way to defend your beliefs is to put them in terms of the other person’s.  So when Dad says he is tolerant within a limited area, ask him if it is OK to ban “hate speech” in college or to impose carbon emission limits.  And if son disses the “one percent”, ask him if that includes billionaire Steve Jobs.  His Dad reminds me somewhat of mine.  He voted for George Wallace but you’d never know that from how he treated people.

  4. Great article, sometimes it takes an emotional confrontation to reach amicable terms, especially between child and parent. We all need to be more aware of other’s feelings and if we can not discuss certain topics in a congenial manner, forego those topics and concentrate on family harmony as the priority. Thanks for the article….

  5. his dad is just making a topic which is a hot issue of his younger times and present times  to have a bonding to his son..,that’s a father mostly talk to their son they want someone to agree on his idea a perception of the issue.

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